MOST people associate Cannes with the film festival and film stars, but that's one or two weeks at most. The other, more important, businesses in Cannes barely get a mentch.
MOST people associate Cannes with the film festival and film stars, but that's one or two weeks at most. The other, more important, businesses in Cannes barely get a mentch. For example, has anyone ever told you about the almost limitless choice of curtains at L'Affaire des Doubles Rideaux at 21 Rue Hoche? Or the many enchanting interiors shops such as Arc en Ciel Deco on the same street? For the foodies, there are markets, delicatessens and brasseries, and there's no shortage of style for the fashionistas.
Actually, the secret is seeping out, because the man in charge of selling Cannes to the world has hit on the idea of a shopping festival. David Lisnard's job is to ensure the Palais des Festivals et de Congres has goings-on all year around. He found he had two free weeks in January, and, hey presto, the festival was born. He inveigles top designers such as Dior and Christian Lacroix to put on their Paris show in the Palais, gets the shops to give sizeable discounts for the duration and extorts practically pension rates from top hotels such as the Majestic, the Carlton and the Noga Hilton for visitors to the shopping extravaganza.
Star-gazers will be familiar with these hotels - they usually accommodate the Nicole Kidmans, Scarlett Johanssons and Jude Laws - and with La Croisette, the stylish thoroughfare between the hotels and the beach, lined with shops such as Chanel, but of course there's so much more to Cannes.
For a start, there's the old town, Le Suquet, named after the hill on which it was built. Dating from the 12th Century, it has winding streets, lots of dotey features such as fountains on the pink brick buildings and lovely little restaurants - the Auberge de Provence, for instance, where you'll get a gourmet six-course lunch including wine for ?30, and where you'll have fun identifying all the stars who've eaten there from the photos on the walls.
It's quite a steep climb, but those who make it to the top are rewarded with spectacular views and a castle called La Castre, with an extraordinary museum displaying artifacts collected by two explorers who, in the mid 19th Century, trawled Tahiti and the Polynesian Islands and brought back carved weaponry, musical instruments, masks, head pieces and jewellery.
And while these local lads were discovering far-flung locations, an Englishman, Lord Brougham, was discovering Cannes and extolling its virtues - the amazing light, the balmy days (even during the shopping festival in January!), its unspoilt seascapes - to his pals back in England. A statue of Brougham is one of the main landmarks, and everything is about five minutes' walk from it in one direction or the other: the antiques market at Les Allees on a Saturday morning; the pedestrian shopping street Rue Meynardier; the daily fruit, flower and vegetable market Forville, where you can also buy any one of about 20 types of local fish, including conger eel, caught daily by the 30 fishermen who still make their living from the sea in Cannes.
The market is like the parish pump and you can even buy clothes and shoes there. "We like our markets," a Cannes resident told me forcefully. I believed her. For your after-market coffee, the nearby La Taverne is a must. The owner, a former goalkeeper and soccer coach, has pennants from, it seems, every team in the world including the Irish. He serves rather nice tapas mid-morning and a tasty beef casserole for lunch at ?9.50. For a more upmarket but equally enjoyable meal try Restaurant Chez Vincent et Nicolas. Or the rooftop restaurant at the new Sofitel, where it's almost impossible to decide which is better: the food or the views. For the ultimate in sensual, the spa at the Martinez Hotel has to be tried. Prohibitively expensive at film festival week, but rather better value in January.
Cannes is ideal for long as well as short breaks because there's always somewhere to go if you tire of the town itself; there are lots of bus trips available which will bring you to intriguing places such as the hilltop village of Grasse, where you can learn all about the ideal perfume nose (apparently, there are only 150 in the world, 50 in Grasse) and create a perfume to your own specifications at the Fragonard perfumery (mine was awful). There's a museum in Grasse devoted to the history of perfume-making (unbelievably, animal fat used to be an important element) with lots of unusual perfume flasks used down through the ages.
Then there's Tanneron, where they cultivate mimosas and export the freshly-cut yellow flowers worldwide. In Mandelieu, the Chateau de la Napoule is a completely mad castle built and furnished by an American couple, Henry and Mary Crews.
Public transport in the area is cheap, regular and punctual. It seems strange that exclusive-sounding little towns like Antibes and Juan-les-Pins are yours for the price of a ?2 ticket. Just like Cannes they're so pretty it's enough to stroll around soaking up atmosphere and spotting landmarks. Antibes has a particularly nice promenade on the parapet along the sea front, punctuated by landmarks like the cathedral, the remains of an ancient Greco-Roman wall and the old washhouse where the women came to do their laundry. There are also stunning art collections in the various museums; not surprising, considering that the area attracted the likes of Picasso, Matisse and Man Ray. The world's great writers have also been frequent visitors - Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway, to name just two - but anybody who is anybody has visited the French Riviera at some stage: Ari and Jackie Onassis, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, all Europe's royalty have been here.
My guess is that most of them came for the shopping. They didn't have the benefits of a shopping festival but none the less, like me, they probably went home laden - it was just a matter of a quick phonecall home to get the window measurements and L'Affaire des Doubles Rideaux did the rest.
During the Cannes Shopping Festival (January 5-15, 2006) the five-star hotels on the Croisette have special rates from ?90 per person per night; three-star hotels from ?35. www.cannesshopping- festival.com and Aer Lingus flies to Cannes, try www.aerlingus.com